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The Arab World
The Hidden Dimension (book)pp. 154-164 | Edward Hall

Posted on 10/27/2001 11:12:18 PM PDT by Anima Mundi


In spite of over two thousand years of contact, Westerners and Arabs still do not understand each other. Proxemic research reveals some insights into this difficulty. Americans in the Middle East are immediately struck by two conflicting sensations. In public they are compressed and overwhelmed by smells, crowding, and high noise levels; in Arab homes Americans are apt to rattle around, feeling exposed and often somewhat inadequate because of too much space! (The Arab houses and apartments of the middle and upper classes which Americans stationed abroad commonly occupy are much larger than the dwellings such Americans usually inhabit.) Both the high sensory stimulation which is experienced in public places and the basic insecurity which comes from being in a dwelling that is too large provide Americans with an introduction to the sensory world of the Arab.


Pushing and shoving in public places is characteristic of Middle Eastern culture. Yet it is not entirely what Americans think it is (being pushy and rude) but stems from a different set of assumptions concerning not only the relations between people but how one experiences the body as well. Paradoxically, Arabs consider northern Europeans and Americans pushy, too. This was very puzzling to me when I started investigating these two views. How could Americans who stand aside and avoid touching be considered pushy? I used to ask Arabs to explain this paradox. None of my subjects was able to tell me specifically what particulars of American behavior were responsible, yet they all agreed that the impression was widespread among Arabs. After repeated unsuccessful attempts to gain insight into the cognitive world of the Arab on this particular point, I filed it away as a question that only time would answer. When the answer came, it was because of a seemingly inconsequential annoyance.

While waiting for a friend in a Washington, D.C. hotel lobby and wanting to be both visible and alone, I had seated myself in a solitary chair outside the normal stream of traffic. In such a setting most Americans follow a rule, which is all the more binding because we seldom think about it, that can be stated as follows: as soon as a person stops or is seated in a public place, there balloons around him a small sphere of privacy which is considered inviolate. The size of the sphere varies with the degree of crowding, the age, sex, and the importance of the person, as well as the general surroundings. Anyone who enters this zone and stays there is intruding. In fact, a stranger who intrudes, even for a specific purpose acknowledges the fact that he has intruded by beginning his request with “Pardon me, but can you tell me...?”

To continue, as I waited in the deserted lobby, a stranger walked up to where I was sitting and stood close enough so that not only could I easily touch him but I could even hear him breathing. In addition, the dark mass of his body filled the peripheral field of vision on my left side. If the lobby had been crowded with people, I would have understood his behavior, but in an empty lobby his presence made me exceedingly uncomfortable. Feeling annoyed by this intrusion, I moved my body in such a way as to communicate annoyance. Strangely enough instead of moving away, my actions seemed only to encourage him, because he moved even closer. In spite of the temptation to escape the annoyance, I put aside thoughts of abandoning my post, thinking, “To hell with it. Why should I move? I was here first and I’m not going to kept this fellow drive me out even if he is a boor.” Fortunately, a group of people soon arrived whom my tormentor immediately joined. Their mannerisms explained his behavior, for I knew from both speech and gestures that they were Arabs. I had not been able to make this crucial identification by looking at my subject when he was alone because he wasn’t talking and he was wearing American clothes.

In describing the scene later to an Arab colleague, two contrasting patterns emerged. My concept and my feelings about my own circle of privacy in a “public” place immediately struck my “Arab friend as strange and puzzling. He said, After all, it’s a public place, isn’t it?” Pursuing this line of inquiry, I found that in Arab thought I had no rights whatsoever by virtue of occupying a given spot; neither my place nor my body was inviolate! For the Arab, there is no such thing as an intrusion in public. Public means public. With this insight, a great range of Arab behavior that had been puzzling, annoying, and sometimes even frightening began to make sense. I learned, for example, that if A is standing on a street corner and B wants his spot, B is within his rights if he does what he can to make A uncomfortable enough to move. In Beirut only the hardy sit in the last row in a movie theater, because there are usually standees who want seats and who push and shove and make such a nuisance that most people give up and leave. Seen in this light, the Arab who “intruded” on my space in the hotel lobby had apparently selected it for the very reason I had: it was a good place to watch two doors and the elevator. My show of annoyance, instead of driving him away, had only encouraged him. He thought he was about to get me to move.

Another silent source of friction between Americans and Arabs is in an area that Americans treat very informally-the manners and rights of the road. In general, in the United States we tend to defer to the vehicle that is bigger, more powerful, faster, and heavily laden. While a pedestrian walking along a road may feel annoyed he will not think it unusual to step aside for a fast-moving automobile. He knows that because he is moving he does not have the right to the space around him that he has when he is standing still (as I was in the hotel lobby). It appears that the reverse is true with the Arabs who apparently take on rights to space as they move. For someone else to move into a space an Arab is also moving into is a violation of his rights, It is infuriating to an Arab to have someone else cut in front of him on the highway. It is the American’s cavalier treatment of moving space that makes the Arab call him aggressive and pushy.


The experience described above and many others suggested to me that Arabs might actually have a wholly contrasting set of assumptions concerning the body and the rights associated with it, Certainly the Arab tendency to shove and push each other in public and to feel and pinch women in public conveyances would not be tolerated by Westerners. It appeared to me that they must not have any concept of a private zone outside the body. This proved to be precisely the case.

In the Western world, the person is synonymous with an individual inside a skin. And in northern Europe generally, the skin and even the clothes may be inviolate. You need [permission to touch either if you are a stranger. This rule applies in some parts of France, where the mere touching of another person during an argument used to be legally defined as assault. For the Arab the location of the person in relation to the body is quite different. The person exists somewhere down inside the body. The ego is not completely hidden, however, because it can be reached very easily with an insult. It is protected from touch but not from words. The dissociation of the body and the ego may explain why the public amputation of a thief’s hand is tolerated as standard punishment in Saudi Arabia. It also sheds light on why an Arab employer living in a modern apartment can provide his servant with a room that is a boxlike cubicle approximately 5 by 10 by 4 feet in size that is not only hung from the ceiling to conserve floor space but has an opening so that the servant can be spied on.

As one might suspect, deep orientations toward the self such as the one just described are also reflected in the language. This was brought to my attention one afternoon when an Arab colleague who is the author of an Arab-Engish dictionary arrived in my office and threw himself into a chair in a state of obvious exhaustion,. When I asked him what had been going on, he said: “I have spent the entire afternoon trying to find the Arab equivalent of the English word ‘rape.’ There is no such word in Arabic. All my sources, both written and spoken, can come up with no more than an approximation, such as ‘He took her against her will.’ There is nothing in Arabic approaching your meaning as it is expressed in that one word.”

Differing concepts of the placement of the ego in relation to the body are not easily grasped. Once an idea like this is accepted, however, it is possible to understand many other facets of Arab life that would otherwise be difficult to explain. One of these is the high population density of Arab cities like Cairo, Beirut, and Damascus. According to the animal studies described in the earlier chapters, the Arabs should be living in a perpetual behavioral sink. While it is probable that Arabs are suffering from population pressures, it is also just as possible that continued pressure from the desert has resulted in a cultural adaptation to high density which takes the form described above. Tucking the ego down inside the body shell not only would permit higher population densities but would explain why it is that Arab communications are stepped up as much as they are when compared to northern European communication patterns. Not only is the sheer noise level much higher, but the piercing look of the eyes, the touch of the hands, and the mutual bathing in the warm moist breath during conversation represent stepped-up sensory inputs to a level which many Europeans find unbearably intense.

The Arab dream is for lots of space in the home, which unfortunately many Arabs con not afford. Yet when he has space, it is very different from what one finds in most American homes. Arab space inside their upper middle-class homes are tremendous by our standards. They avoid partitions because Arabs do not like to be alone. The form of the home is such as to hold the family together inside a single protective shell, because Arabs are deeply involved with each other. Their personalities are intermingled and take nourishment from each other like the roots and soil. If one is not with people and actively involved in some way, one is deprived of life. An old Arab saying reflects this value: “Paradise without people should not be entered because it is Hell.” Therefore, Arabs in the United states often feel socially and sensorially deprived and long to be back where there is human warmth and contact.

Since there is no physical privacy as we know it in the Arab family, not even a word for privacy, one could expect that the Arabs might use some other means to be alone. Their way to be alone is to stop talking. Like the English, an Arab who shuts himself off in this way is not indicating that anything is wrong or that he is withdrawing, only that he wants to be alone with his own thoughts or does not want to be intruded upon. One subject said that her father would come and go for days at a time without saying a word, and no one in the family thought anything of it. Yet for this very reason, an Arab exchange student visiting a Kansas farm failed to pick up the cue that his American hosts were mad at him when they gave him the “silent treatment.” He only discovered something was wrong when they took him to town and tried forcibly to put him on a bus to Washington, D.C., the headquarters of the exchange program responsible for his presence in the U.S.


Like everyone else in the world, Arabs are unable to formulate specific rules for their informal behavior patterns. In fact, they often deny that there are any rules, and they are made anxious by suggestions that such is the case. Therefore, in order to determine how the Arab sets distances, I investigated the use of each sense separately. Gradually, definite and distinctive behavioral patterns began to emerge.

Olfaction occupies a prominent place in the Arab life. Not only is it one of the distance-setting mechanisms, but it is a vital part of a complex system of behavior. Arabs consistently breathe on people when they talk. However, this habit is more than a matter of different manners. To the Arab good smells are pleasing and a way of being involved with each other. To smell one’s friend is not only nice but desirable, for to deny him your breath is to act ashamed. Americans, on the other hand, trained as they are not to breathe in people’s faces. automatically communicate shame in trying to be polite. Who would expect that when our highest diplomats are putting on their best manners they are also communicating shame? Yet this is what occurs constantly, because diplomacy is not only “eyeball to eyeball” but breath to breath.

By stressing olfaction, Arabs do not try to eliminate all the body’s odors, only to enhance them and use them in building human relationships. Nor are they self-conscious about telling others when they don’t like the way they smell. A man leaving his house in the morning may be told by his uncle, “Habib, your stomach is sour and your breath doesn’t smell too good. Better not talk too close to people today.” Smell is even considered in the choice of a mate. When couples are being matched for marriage, the man’s go-between will sometimes ask to smell the girl, who may be turned down if she doesn’t “smell nice.” Arabs recognize that smell and disposition may be linked.

In a word, the olfactory boundary performs two roles in Arab life. It enfolds those who want to relate and separates those who don’t. The Arab finds it essential to stay inside the olfactory zone as a means of keeping tab on changes in emotion. What is more, he may feel crowded as soon as he smells something unpleasant. While not much is known about “olfactory crowding,” this may prove to be as significant as any other variable in the crowding complex because it is tied directly to the body chemistry and hence to the state of health and emotions. (The reader will remember that it was olfaction in the Bruce effect that suppressed pregnancies in mice.) It is not surprising, therefore, that the olfactory boundary constitutes for the Arabs an informal distance-setting mechanism in contrast to the visual mechanisms of the Westerner.


One of my earliest discoveries in the field of intercultural communication was that the position of the bodies of people in conversation varies with the culture. Even so, it used to puzzle me that a special Arab friend seemed unable to walk and talk at the same time. After years in the United States, he could not bring himself to stroll along, facing forward while talking. Our progress would be arrested while he edged ahead, cutting slightly in front of me and turning sideways so we could see each other. Once in this position, he would stop. His behavior was explained when I learned that for the Arabs to view the other person peripherally is regarded as impolite, and to sit or stand back-to-back is considered very rude. You must be involved when interacting with Arabs who are friends.

One mistaken American notion is that Arabs conduct all conversations at close distances. This is not the case at all. On social occasions, they may sit on opposite sides of the room and talk across the room to each other, They are, however, apt to take offense when Americans use what are to them ambiguous distances, such as four-to seven-foot social-consultative distance. They frequently complain that Americans are cold or aloof or “don’t care.” This was what an elderly Arab diplomat in an American hospital thought when the American nurses used “professional” distance. He had the feeling that he was being ignored, that they might not take good care of him. Another Arab subject remarked, referring to American behavior, “What’s the matter? Do I smell bad? Or are they afraid of me?”

Arabs who interact with Americans report experiencing a certain flatness traceable in part to a very different use of the eyes in private and in public as well as between friends and strangers. Even though it is rude for a guest to walk around the Arab home eyeing things, Arabs look at each other in ways which seem hostile or challenging to the American. One Arab informant said that he was in constant hot water with Americans because of the way he looked at them without the slightest intention of offending. In fact, he had on several occasions barely avoided fights with American men who apparently thought their masculinity was being challenged because of the way he was looking at them. As noted earlier, Arabs look each other in the eye when talking with an intensity that makes most Americans highly uncomfortable.


As the reader must gather by now, Arabs are involved with each other on many different levels simultaneously. Privacy in a public place is foreign to them. Business transactions in the bazaar, for example, are not just between buyer and seller, but are participated in by everyone. Anyone who is standing around may join in. If a grownup sees a boy breaking a window, he must stop him even if he doesn’t know him. Involvement and participation are expressed in other ways as well. If two men are fighting, the crowd must intervene. On the political level, to fail to intervene when trouble is brewing is to take sides, which is what our State Department always seems to be doing. Given the fact that few people in the world today are even remotely aware of the cultural mold that forms their thoughts, it is normal for Arabs to view our behavior as though it stemmed from their own hidden set of assumptions.


In the course of my interviews with Arabs the term “tomb” kept cropping up in conjunction with enclosed spaces. In a word, Arabs don’t mind being crowded by people but hate to be hemmed in by walls. They show a much greater overt sensitivity to architectural crowding than we do, Enclosed space must meet at least three requirements that I know of if it is to satisfy the Arabs: there must be plenty of unobstructed space in which to move around (possibly as much as a thousand square feet); very high ceilings - so high in fact that they do not normally impinge on the visual field; and, in addition, there must be an unobstructed view. It was spaces such as these in which the Americans referred to earlier felt so uncomfortable. One sees the Arab’s need for a view expressed in many ways, even negatively, for to cut off a neighbor’s view is one of the most effective ways of spiting him. In Beirut one can see what is known locally as the “spite house.” It is nothing more than a thick, four-story wall, built at the end of a long fight between neighbors, on a narrow strip of land for the express purpose of denying a view of the Mediterranean to any house built on the land behind. According to one of my informants, there is also a house on a small plot of land between Beirut and Damascus which is completely surrounded by a neighbor’s wall built high enough to cut off the view from all windows!


Proxemic patterns tell us other things about Arab culture. For example, the whole concept of the boundary as an abstraction is almost impossible to pin down. In one sense, there are no boundaries. “Edges” of towns, yes, but permanent boundaries out in the country (hidden lines), no. In the course of my work with Arab subjects I had a difficult time translating our concept of a boundary into terms which could be equated with theirs. In order to clarify the distinctions between the two very different definitions, I thought it might be helpful to pinpoint acts which constituted trespass. To date, I have been unable to discover anything even remotely resembling our own legal concept of trespass.

Arab behavior in regard to their own real estate is apparently an extension of, and therefore consistent with, their approach to the body. My subjects simply failed to respond whenever trespass was mentioned. They didn’t seem to understand what I meant by this term. This may be explained by the fact that they organize relationships with each other according to closed social systems rather than spatially. For thousands of years Moslems, Marinites, Druses, and Jews have lived in their own villages, each with strong kin affiliations, Their hierarchy of loyalties is: First to one’s self, then to kinsman, townsman, or tribesman, co-religionist and/or countryman. Anyone not in these categories is a stranger. Strangers and enemies are very closely linked, if not synonymous, in Arab thought. Trespass in this context is a matter of who you are, rather than a piece of land or a space with a boundary that can be denied to anyone and everyone, friend and foe alike.

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There are many implications here. I noted the following:

1. When we watch for "suspicious" behavior, what do we look for? "Suspicious behavior" in this case might mean the person is acting like us.

2. Olfaction is very important. Might it be used as a disorientation weapon? Eggs dropped that rot, skunks, etc.?

3.Isolation might be a good "torture" technique

4. It appears if one moves or backs away it is seen only as weakness and encouragement to take more space

5. Boundaries are set by relationships not lines on maps.

1 posted on 10/27/2001 11:12:18 PM PDT by Anima Mundi
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Comment #2 Removed by Moderator

To: Anima Mundi
3 posted on 10/27/2001 11:28:27 PM PDT by ThePythonicCow
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To: Anima Mundi
Shoot, I never realized the extent to which our culture is so much superior.
4 posted on 10/27/2001 11:35:11 PM PDT by billybudd
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To: billybudd
Shame on you, billybud!

All cultures are equal.
Our strength is from our diversity
Islam is a religion of peace, love and tolerance.

< /sarcasm>
All P.C. garbage and pure bullshit.
Semper Fi

5 posted on 10/27/2001 11:54:04 PM PDT by river rat
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To: Anima Mundi
The French Pilot-Philosopher, Antoine De Saint-Exupery, (author of "The Little Prince" though he wrote much more) had extensive contact with the Arab cultures while trying to establish air mail routes for Air France in Algeria and Morroco during the 1920's. He mentions many times such paradoxes between Arab and European cultures. From some of these observations, as well as other cultures, he began to formulate his origin of war as the inability of different cultures to communicate. His writings can be found in his book "Wind, Sand and Stars". He disappeared into the Mediteranian Sea in 1944 while flying a P-38 "Lightening", unarmed reconnaissance plane.

Thanks for the informative post.

8 posted on 10/28/2001 12:15:49 AM PDT by elbucko
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To: Anima Mundi; dennisw; Yehuda; Nachum; veronica; Lent; American in Israel; angelo; Sabramerican
Very interesting.


9 posted on 10/28/2001 12:22:54 AM PDT by American Preservative
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To: Anima Mundi
5. Boundaries are set by relationships not lines on maps.

So does that mean that if a Jew comes in proximity to an Arab, the Arab reacts negatively not because of any invasion of his "space" but because the person is a Jew.

10 posted on 10/28/2001 12:25:05 AM PDT by Theresa
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To: Tauzero
Barbaric folk indeed.

Wry remark, or are you serious?

A lot of the remarks on the differences in cultures are how us Westerners view Easterners, and vice versa, I suppose. What we think of as friendliness, they think of intrusions on their public privacy space. What we think of as a hideous, cramped coffin, they call a loft. Behaviors they feel are acceptable prompt us to say, "You must be from New York."
A friend's brother-in-law, who is Arab, on coming to our rural town, said that part of it reminded him of Jordan.
Maybe Westerners in the diplomatic corps, maybe President Bush himself, would have much more "luck" dealing with this world than Easterners.

12 posted on 10/28/2001 1:59:23 AM PDT by patriciaruth
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To: river rat
Fvck the Arabs. Americans and other westerners when they go abroad are expected to be sensitive to the local cultures. They can do the same when they come here.
Semper Fi!
13 posted on 10/28/2001 1:11:35 AM PDT by Robert Lomax
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To: Anima Mundi
That bit about olfaction is particularly interesting.

I suspect that pheromones play a much more important role in our lives that is generally realized.

Many pheromones are probably unconscious but affect us powerfully anyway. They're probably constantly shifting and changing with our emotions et al.

Many people are not aware of the varied and powerful pheromones that affect sex and sexuality. They probably affect everything else as well.

Many people are in denial about smells. Certain states--depression comes to mind--can have a suppressing effect on smell--and no doubt on pheromones. Some depressed people e.g. say, "I don't have much of a sense of smell."

14 posted on 10/28/2001 1:47:58 AM PDT by Savage Beast
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To: Anima Mundi

15 posted on 10/28/2001 2:03:05 AM PST by ppaul
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To: ppaul
Hahahahahaha! Good stuff!
16 posted on 10/28/2001 2:52:20 AM PST by billybudd
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To: candyman34
"the zionist propaganda machine is out in force this morning"

And the Jew-baiting propaganda machine is out in farce this morning.

Interesting comment coming from the same agitator who said, "it is totally stupid to trash someones religion" -- while talking about the islamists -- isn't it. Well, maybe not, considering he also said "and who can trust israel - the old gestapo routine works pretty good - beat the hell out of them until they are afraid not to like you - it worked for hitler".

17 posted on 10/28/2001 2:53:04 AM PST by Don Joe
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To: patriciaruth
"Barbaric folk indeed."

"Wry remark, or are you serious?

"A lot of the remarks on the differences in cultures are how us Westerners view Easterners, and vice versa, I suppose. What we think of as friendliness, they think of intrusions on their public privacy space. What we think of as a hideous, cramped coffin, they call a loft."

And what we think of as rape, they think of as...

Well, maybe some day they'll get around to coming up with a word for that "cultural" triviality, eh?

18 posted on 10/28/2001 2:55:29 AM PST by Don Joe
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To: ppaul
If there are no boundaries, I can see where the Arabs have failed to get any semblance of prosperity. The ownership of property is the first requirement for any sort of responsibility or incentive.

The socio/communist movement has proven this. The Arabs by their tradition are communal in their society. This explains their extreme envy of the West. We see this envy factor in our country where "soak the rich" is a rallying cry for the left.

19 posted on 10/28/2001 2:59:27 AM PST by meenie
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To: meenie
20 posted on 10/28/2001 3:15:40 AM PST by lucyblue
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